Immigrant workers are important to Gainesville’s poultry industry, said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, at an immigration meeting Tuesday in Duluth.
Giles took part in a panel discussion before the Georgia Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Other panel members included Karen Bremer, Georgia Restaurant Association; Charles Hall, Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association; and Manuel Zurita, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“It is our hope that immigration reform will create an environment that will aid the border security challenge by making visas available when market conditions warrant and by providing employers with the tools they need to determine with certainty who is authorized to work in the United States and who is not,” Giles said.
Participants in the first panel discussion said their industry needs unskilled or low-skilled workers for jobs that many Americans don’t seem to want. All of the industry representatives said they support comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level and all, except Giles, said Georgia’s immigration law, passed in 2011, has had a negative effect on the workforce.
Panelists advocated a type of guest worker program or path to legal status. Zurita said illegal immigrants are more vulnerable to abuse and are less likely to speak up.
Poultry is the largest sector of agriculture and agribusiness in the state, Giles said. He cited University of Georgia statistics, saying the industry has an annual impact of more than $20 billion on the state’s economy and accounts for about 100,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Jerry Gonzalez, a member of the advisory committee and president of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, asked Giles about the possible impact of an immigration raid or the state’s immigration law on the poultry industry in Gainesville.
The purpose of Georgia’s law is to expel illegal immigrants, Gonzalez said. He quoted U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., from 2010 when the lawmaker introduced a bill that would allow for a nonamnesty option for temporary agriculture workers. An estimated 50 to 70 percent of the U.S.’ agricultural workforce is undocumented, said Chambliss in a press release dated Sept. 30, 2010.
“I could foresee circumstances in which a person who is undocumented leaves the state, it could have an effect on a person who’s documented and here legally,” Giles said. “So it could have a negative effect on the number of even documented workers who are available.”
Hall said that many pickers misunderstood the Georgia law, which requires all employers who employ more than 10 full-time workers to start using E-Verify, an Internet check of citizenship status using government databases, by July 1 of this year.
Many documented and undocumented workers left Georgia two years ago, leaving a severe worker shortage, he said. The situation was better in 2012, but legal and illegal workers have left the state to avoid confrontations with law enforcement officers, Hall said.
The restaurant industry also is concerned about a worker shortage, Bremer said. Dishwashers and hostesses can’t be outsourced, she said. The industry in Georgia is expected to add 53,100 jobs over the next decade, employing 432,000 by 2022.
Zurita said many foreign workers, documented and undocumented, experience employment law violations, including repeated sexual assaults and human trafficking. However, discrimination is difficult to penalize because migrant workers won’t cooperate with investigations and fear retaliation, such as job loss and deportation.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is more than 50 years old and was created to advise the president and Congress on civil rights issues. It also includes state advisory committees. The meeting included a second panel and an evening session where the public could give comments.